Women’s History Month: Jean McLean (part 3)

History Council of Victoria

Yes, I know; three posts from Jean McLean does seem to fall into the same trap I mentioned in my first post. But the reality is that she has given a great deal of thought to the issues around the Vietnam War protests, and that she was a vital part of the whole thing – particularly in organising the May 1970 moratorium. And so, I give her the final word, about organising that moratorium – and about how it reflected the enormous change in Australian attitudes. In the mid 1960s, most adults supported the idea of conscription, and the Vietnam War also seemed necessary to many. But the 8 May 1970 moratorium saw somewhere between 60 and 100,000 people on the streets of Melbourne, and more in other capital cities; and then in 1972, Whitlam was elected, and most agree that the conscription issue was a significant factor in that. So here’s Jean’s perspective on how you keep going over nearly a decade (longer than most other excerpts):

Jean McLean interview

Transcript

Alex: You said before that, obviously, the campaign had a beginning, a middle and an end. But you didn’t know that when you started – – –

Jean: Oh, no.

Alex:  – – – and I’ve read a lot about just how distressing the 1966 election was in terms of hoping against hope that it wouldn’t happen, and then it did. 

Jean: Yeah, well, we thought that would all happen just like that. 

Alex: Yeah. How did you keep enthusiastic? How did you – how did you keep an organisation like that – you, in general – how did you keep going? 

Jean: Well, part of it was, there was Ian Turner, but also a guy called Max Teichmann, he’d been a philosopher, and then he became an international affairs lecturer. He went through phases of being left and being right, but luckily I had him in the left bit. But he was very good, because he understood the history of all this anti-conscription stuff better than I did. I mean, I didn’t read a book then think, I’ll do it. 

And at that election, and at the ’69, when people were, you know, young people who’d been handing out how to vote cards, and they were crying, “Oh, we’ve lost.” Max said, “No. We got more votes this time. We’ll get more votes next time.” And he did that again with the ’69, you know? He said, “It takes time. It takes time for people to understand. We’re doing better.” So – – – 

Alex: So you had a long-term vision – – – 

Jean: Yeah. Able to see in the long term. And also because we got more and more support. We didn’t get less. We got more. 

Alex: Yeah. So you could see that you were having an effect? 

Jean: Yeah, yeah. And I must say that, obviously, the reason that they don’t allow journalists into the Middle East wars is because every night that it was on the television, every single night, there was what was happening in Vietnam. And it was all terrible. And – you know? And they’d try and tell you something, “Oh, we won, we killed five thousand Viet Cong.” And people said, “That’s disgusting.” 

So, now, they don’t let people know what’s happening. You know, and it was just, sort of – – –

Alex: The media really played into showing people just how terrible things were, and then you’re right there, your organisation’s right there, and gives some people a real way of reacting against it. 

Jean: Exactly.

Alex: I guess, if anybody knows anything about the anti-conscription movement, they tend to know about the moratorium marches. Do you think they were effective?

Jean: Oh, incredibly so. Because – and the Victorian one was the most successful, in part because of Jim Cairns. Who was the deputy prime minister – he’s been written out of history. 

Alex: Yeah.

Jean: He’s been written out of history, you know? You never hear anyone talk about Jim Cairns. And yet, it was Jim who, in ’62, he spoke out against the war. The secret war in Laos. And, anyway, he was the chair of the moratorium. And so, you know, we had to do the work, because he was in Parliament. You know, but he’d come to address meetings. But he was a very important figurehead, because he spoke very, very well against war. 

So anyway, the moratorium movement in Melbourne – we started with a meeting of all the different groups. Save Our Sons, the Youth Campaign Against Conscription, all the different groups. We met in Richmond Town Hall. And we worked out programs, including – like, we used to go and – I was – Jim was the chair, I was deputy chair, Bernie Taft was another deputy chair. And Harry Van Moorst was – for one of them was the deputy chair. 

 Anyway, we’d have meetings, and – we’d go and address people at – through working with the trade union movement – at all the factory doors. Sometimes we were allowed in the dining room, depending on the make-up of the factories. Others, we had to speak at the gates. But we did that. We went, you know, just hundreds of meetings. We went and distributed leaflets. We raised funds. 

So that by the time May the 8th turned up, there were just hundreds and hundreds of people. The police had been told – and I had a police spy, a brother of a friend who was in the police, and he said – like, he just told us that they’d been given instructions in the morning, that they’d have all the horses at the top of town, and they’d have all these police – so they’d break up the demonstration, they wouldn’t allow it to happen. 

 And so we had a meeting at the Assembly Hall the morning of the demo, where we were going to get everybody to be marshals. They’d have a band. So everybody had to try and make sure there was no – nobody’d get out and start hitting. You know, bash them. 

Anyway, so then we came out of that meeting, and my friend said, “All the rules have been changed. We’ve now been told to make sure that the demonstration isn’t – you know, facilitate. Facilitate the demonstration.” Make sure that – no cars in the way when we march, you know, so the route from the gardens down, to march. 

Because what had happened was, everywhere you looked that morning, when we were going to the meeting, everywhere you looked, there were people with rolled up banners, there were people with T-shirts, there were – you could see that everyone was going to the demo. This is going to be huge. Couldn’t believe it. Schools! High schools! And they let the kids go, the – you know, the senior kids. All that sort of thing. And, yeah, it was just amazing. And that’s why it was so successful. Was not tweets, but physical meeting and talking. And I still believe that that’s the only real way to do things.  

If you know of a Melbourne woman involved in protesting against the Vietnam War, please leave a comment!

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